The Sciences

What to do about the Pope?

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollApr 15, 2010 12:38 AM


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When it comes to religion, I'm more interested in scientific and philosophical questions -- Does God exist? Can science say anything about the supernatural? -- than in sociological or political ones -- Is religion good and or evil?, etc. So there was not much temptation to wade in on Pope Benedict's recent troubles, or the wider issue of sex scandals in the Catholic Church. Now, happily, that temptation has dipped to zero, since Phil Plait has done such a good job. Read the whole thing, as they say. Roughly, Phil notes that the Pope seems to be responsible for some very bad things; that he should be brought to justice for any wrong-doings; that there is some relevance to concerns of the skeptical community, insofar as the Church invokes supernatural explanations; but finally, that the strategy should not be simply one of proclaiming superiority and tarring religion as evil and demanding heads on plates. Catholics and other believers, whether we disagree with them or not, are human beings who will understandably be upset and troubled at the recent news. We don't help to convert them to atheism or naturalism or skepticism by shoving the shortcomings of their leaders in their faces in the midst of a crisis; reason and rational discourse should be more our style. It's a nuanced argument, which means it's guaranteed to be misunderstood and caricatured, since even God can't control the natural impulses of the internet. Let's be clear: I want religion to vanish. I think that religious beliefs are wrong, and that the world would be a better place if everyone accepted the real world for what it is. And I believe that many of the actions of the Church when it comes to pedophilia certainly deserve the label "evil," whatever one might think of the people who perpetrated them. So the question is, how to bring about the rationalist utopia in which people's actions are based on reason and reflection rather than faith and hierarchy? I agree with Phil's answers, as I've argued in other contexts. One of the primary tenets of a rationalist philosophy should be that we should be especially skeptical about claims that we want to be true. Our personal preferences don't have any effect on the truth, so we need to guard against confirmation bias and lazy acceptance of ideas that make us happy. One great example is the idea that we're going to make the world a better and more rational place by telling everyone how much smarter we are than everyone else, and how evil and stupid our enemies are. The Pope's recent actions, it seems clear, are some combination of evil and stupid. But now is just not the time for patting ourselves on the back. A lot of people have been deeply hurt, directly or indirectly, and we should be able to show just a modicum of restraint. Not giving up or keeping quiet, but picking our spots. After all, we don't have to win by being obnoxious -- we can win by being right.

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